Reflections on the UGANDA 2012? Event

“Pain is an irrational thing, but there are practical and employable tactics we can use to work through it. But arresting one man is not going to ‘clean up’ the pain of an entire country – or an entire region, which is in East Africa.”

I said something to this effect two Wednesdays past at the aforementioned Uganda 2012 event. It was probably less cleverly phrased in actuality than in my memory, as i tend to be considerably more gawkish in person than when hidden behind a laptop keyboard – but the sentiment remains. The #Kony2012 campaign began as something building off of emotional energy – the ‘irrational’ side of human nature – rather than assessing the practical and logistical ways we, as Global North youth can empower and actualize Ugandans to work through the trauma of recovering from war. This isn’t to say empathy or compassion have no place in action (i argue they are at the core of all empowerment) but you cannot channel your emotions alone into a movement that could, via governmental policy, potentially impact the lives of thousands (if not millions) of people. Compassion is key, empathy is needed, but to act on emotion alone renders no progress.

Which is why we had gathered last week to talk about what we could do, beginning with a critical conversation concerning UGANDA in 2012. In this, my goal as the event coordinator and facilitator was two-fold: i wanted to engage in this discussion in a way that actualized and recognized Uganda without putting the “face” of the problem as a face of a man who has instigated incredible pain and travesty in the country – with full understanding that being able to have this very conversation meant i had to recognize the privilege i posses, as a white American university student with leisure time and the resources to learn more readily available to me. Secondly, i wanted us as a crew (whomever showed up) to leave the event feeling, if nothing else, to have learned enough to want to continue to seek bigger, harder questions.

I’d like to think i achieved my two aims.

We began the event with, well, yours truly, making an opening statement to something of this effect: You are all most welcome in this place.* We would like to begin by acknowledging that it is a privilege for us to be gathered in this space discussing these global concerns. Furthermore, as you have no doubt noticed from the title of this event, we are talking today about Uganda in 2012, not the internet-driven “Kony2012″ campaign. To this end, this gathering is not intended in any way to attack Invisible Children, its affiliates, or supporters. We will be incorporating thoughts on the film into our conversation today, but we want to make an effort to give light to and engage in the complex history of Uganda and its peoples, not just the face of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The event itself today will be a little atypical in format; it is a panel-led conversation. Our panelists will make brief statements concerning their area of research, after which i will guide us all in a group discourse with key framework questions. I therefore invite you all to speak out and voice your opinions and questions but simultaneously encourage you to be respectful of all our fellow human beings in this space.

With my co-coordinators Professor Holly Hanson, chair of the MHC African & African-American Studies Department and Saran Sidime, one of my best friends and future Secretary-General of the UN. Photo by the lovely and talented Mohini Ufeli!

We then moved around the circle, as there were only 20 or so gathered, to introduce ourselves with reasons for coming. Some were required by their professor (but i like to think they found the time valuable nonetheless) and most others because they had seen the Kony 2012 film and wanted to know another perspective. It was the perfect size gathering; small enough that everyone could speak if they wanted – giving it a real conversational air – but not so small that people felt obligated to speak.

Photo by Mohini Ufeli, of Vocal Lens Photography.**

From there, some of the panelists gave an outline history of who the LRA are, why they came to be, and why supporting the UPDF (Uganda Police Defense Force, which is the Ugandan army) as a means of ending the war is not a viable political alternative. We talked of Archbishop John Baptist Odama and the religious leaders who slept on the streets with the night commuters and, transitively, of the attention given to the victimized children long prior to Invisible Children’s presence. The point was made that night commuting has ended, Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda, and the real problem Uganda faces today is rebuilding a country recovering from a traumatic guerilla war. Such a dilemma is more psychological than anything else- and therefore more complex than the capture of one single person.

I could enumerate the rest of the conversation, but i feel it would be better if i instead recalled the highlights that stand out to me now, two weeks away from it. Most of all, amidst the conversations about what reintegration of child soldiers looks like and detailing the power of fair trade purchasing, i saw hope. I shy away from clichés as much as possible, but the frankness of such a feeling needs its proper name. The horror of war is, ultimately, an irrational thing. To attempt to hold the idea that human beings can enact such atrocities on one another is simultaneously terrifying and almost impossible. This is why IC is right to react to war – and why emotion-centered films are so effective in invigorating action within people. But to be lost is the sorrow is to lose sight of what a dear friend of mine, Dr. Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, often says: “lament is the heart of hope.”

Wanting justice isn’t a wrong thing to desire. But we have to critically examine what we mean by justice; does deploying more violence in the form of military action really mean justice will be brought forth? I think not. Claiming an American military action will end a war is such a limited way to view Uganda – and it loses sight of the most crucial aspect to healing: forgiveness. Having hope doesn’t mean covering town with posters of a criminal. Having hope means listening, processing, churning through ideas and making mistakes. Hope is the power of reconciliation, hope is what i saw when my peers knew that something was wrong with the documentary that rendered it, as one student put it, “impossible to have a rational reaction while watching the film because it is so emotionally manipulative.” They came anyway. Just because one film presented one skewed side didn’t mean they couldn’t seek out the questions on their own.

And ultimately, that is what we were left with. There isn’t a universal plan for action. Seeking peace isn’t as easy as a painted sign or letter to congress. And, to be totally fair, IC is stepping up their game in handling the critiques so well. I applaud them for that; i also must thank them for making such a controversial video. I say now as i said then: “let’s be real: we wouldn’t be gathered here to talk about Uganda 2012 today were it not for this internet buzz spawned by Invisible Children. On some level, we owe that to them.”

But peace is complex, and the first step in unraveling the complexity enough to see the knots as individual pieces rather than jumbled balls of yarn is understanding. Continuing to ask the questions, to dig deeper into history and read continually about on-the-ground information. If its purchasing power you want to employ, buy fair trade Ugandan products. Support micofinance outreach and loan to small business owners. But know that capitalism isn’t the ultimate truth to curing afflictions on this scale.

It has taken me considerably longer than i intended to write this blog post; in part, this is because i am in a musical and exams are encroaching closer than comfort prefers and, well, i do occasionally leave the internet in my wake whilst sitting outside and reading Dorothy Day. While i do feel slightly guilty for not talking sooner, i am glad i waited – because a few days ago, i stumbled across this gem via some friends met in Uganda:

I highly encourage you all to watch this video; it is a more community-focused mini-documentary on the need for a nonviolent resolution with the LRA. On a personal note, i have met almost all the people interviewed and have critically engaged in some wonderful, challenging, gut-wrenchingly-hard conversations concerning the meaning of forgiveness. It is a powerful film that serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the Kony campaign. Most of all, though, i think it says everything i just did but more eloquently, more directly, and from the people whose voices matter far more on the subject than my own.

current jam: “it gets better” fun. (i cannot stop listening to this song. just cannot.)

best thing: putnam goes up in less than a week! if you live in the valley, there’s a facebook event for you.

**photos by the lovely & talented mohini ufeli, of vocal lens photography! (go leave her & co-photographer, ify’s, facebook fan page some loving!)

* i realize i use this phrase with considerable frequency here with not context; it is something that was told to me over and over when in uganda. i mean it to offer that same hospitality, as much as i can in my smallness and via the internet.